STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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The four most baffling things I heard at yesterday's state House hearing on preschool funding

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 This week, the state legislature began its first hearings on Governor's Snyder's proposal to more than double preschool funding in Michigan over the next two years. Yesterday, I went to a joint House committee to get a sense of where lawmakers stand on the proposal. It was clear that many lawmakers are sincerely trying to do their job, and really investigate whether the preschool investment is worth it for taxpayers. But, some of the things I heard were pretty weird. 

Here's a list of the weirdest:

1. "It seems to me, the perverse incentive is to take the family and rip it apart."

That one was from Republican State Representative Martin Howrylak, of Troy. Howrylak was trying to make a point that is valid. In his view, the state should focus on helping families, not expanding programs that take the kids out of the home. But the comment seemed to ignore the fact that many families in Michigan want their kids to go to preschool. Great Start districts across the state have long waiting lists full of families who are trying to get their four year olds into classes. 

2. "Is there any disadvantage of a student beginning too early? I'm hearing some interesting thoughts about students ... attempting to teach them too early in life."  This one truly confused me at first. It came from Republican Representative Paul Muxlow, of Brown City. What confused me about the question is that young children are never not learning. We couldn't stop teaching them if we tried. Not to mention the mountains of evidence from brain research that suggests young minds need lots of stimulation to develop. After some reading, I realized Muxlow is probably referring toa debate over what kinds of things to teach preschoolers. That seems like a debate worth having, though it should be said that preschools are not places where kids go sit in rows of chairs and learn the alphabet. Good preschool teachers teach through play. Which brings us to ...

3. "Early childhood is numbers, letters, colors, socialization. Do you need to have a bachelor's degree, do you need to have all this extra support to do this?" asked Republican Representative Amanda Price, of Park Township. She added, "I'm not convinced that you do." After the hearing, Rep. Bob Genetski of Saugatuck told me had similar concerns. Of course, the point makes some sense. But if there's one thing the nearly half-century of research into preschool in America can confirm, it's that good teachers matter. It's one of the cornerstones of the highly-touted, and highly successful Perry Preschool project.  The National Institute for Early Education Research says teacher qualifications are one of the top-10 things parents need to look for in a preschool. The NIEER says every class should be led by a teacher with a bachelor's degree.

4. "Head Start is ...  preschoolish." This one is particularly wacky because it came from Susan Broman, head of Michigan's Office of Great Start. She is an advocate for preschool. She was at the hearing to make the case for why the state should invest more money. Having interviewed her in the past, I think even she might admit that "preschoolish" was not the best word choice to describe Head Start. The problem is, Head Start is being used as an example to make the case against preschool funding. That's because there's a growing - though clearly incorrect - view that Head Start is a failure. Rather than challenge that view with facts, Broman and other preschool advocates are trying to just say that their programs are not the same as Head Start. Broman's full quote: "Head Start is a much more comprehensive child well-being program that one component of it is preschoolish, or early learning." I reported in our early childhood special about the long history of confusion over Head Start's mission, so I see Broman's point. But Head Start is still preschool. 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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